Opinion: Daily Journal

Regulating Raleigh’s Culinary Culture

Congratulations are once again due Raleigh, as the city now ranks No. 5 among the top 10 culinary cultures in America, according to a recent poll from USA Today.

But before you go getting too excited about these appetizing accolades, you should be aware that culinary culture in our state’s capital city — thriving though it is — may stand to be affected by some recent regulatory changes. These alterations follow several months of intense debate between local restaurant and bar owners, downtown residents, and the city council.

What’s the big issue? Some heated differences of opinion about the usage of sidewalk dining spaces in the downtown area. (Not that outdoor dining is directly related to culinary culture, but it certainly does play a big role in Raleigh’s restaurant and bar scene — as multiple owners of downtown establishments have attested before the city government.)

Arguments about excessive “vibrancy” in downtown Raleigh began in mid-May of this year when complaints about too much revelry were brought before the city council. Some complainants pointed to loud noise as the main offense. Others protested that crowd spillover from sidewalk patios was blocking walkways and disrupting foot traffic.

And that’s when the city stepped in with a proposal in early June. The regulatory plan, which moved to amend Raleigh’s existing Private Use of Public Spaces handbook, would have banned sidewalk-dining privileges only for bars and private clubs that made less than 30 percent of their revenue from food.

Protests ensued, as owners of several downtown pubs felt the changes were sprung on them with little notice. What followed were alternate proposals from the city, weeks of discussion among council members, and committee meetings between downtown business owners and residents.

The goal? To reach a compromise that would make business owners and residents happy. The result? Well … not that.

Ultimately, the city council approved a plan that included earlier closing curfews for all outdoor dining areas on city sidewalks, space limits based on North Carolina building code, use of stanchions to delineate patio spaces from the sidewalk, and a better enforcement plan for all existing sidewalk dining rules. All of this is part of a three-month trial plan — after which the city will reassess to judge its effectiveness.

Reactions to the decision have been mixed. Some restaurant and bar owners say that earlier closing times, and more limits on their outdoor dining spaces, will decrease customer traffic and hurt the bottom line. Some downtown residents say that an even earlier curfew is needed to take care of the noise that is so disruptive to their sleep.

And some council members say that genuine compromise, instead of council-imposed regulations, would have been a good alternative to the plan that now stands.

“I think that the business community has a lot of great ideas, and I was hoping [the committee] would come back with some solutions instead of the council having to make the rules,” said council member John Odom during discussion of what would become the agreed-upon plan. “No disrespect to the council, but when you put the council in charge of making decisions, that isn’t always good for everybody, let me tell you that.”

Perhaps Mr. Odom might add his commentary to how the council’s decision bodes for Raleigh’s culinary culture, too. Someone call USA Today.

Kari Travis (@karilynntravis) is an Associate Editor and Social Media Specialist for Carolina Journal.